Norman Musa's Guide to Malaysian Spices

Spices are essential in Malaysian cooking. In my kitchen cupboard, I keep a round spice tin that travels with me whenever I have cooking demos. Below I’ve listed some of my favourite spices that I keep in my tin.

Cloves - Cengkih

A good friend of mine, Mark who is an experienced and knowledgeable tour guide in Penang, recently told me that my Penang hometown produces one of the best quality cloves in the world. Little I knew about it! Cloves are brilliant to infuse rice, like the tomato rice recipe in my cookbook and when added into tea. It’s also my favourite spice to add to jelly desserts. When buying cloves, get the one that has a round bulb at the tip, which is the best quality.

Mixed Spices (Panch Poran) - Halba Campur

This spice mix, known as panch poran, comprises of mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fennel or sometimes carom seeds and fenugreek. You can mix it yourself if you have all the spices handy but can get this in most Asian grocery stores. It is used for the fish curry recipe in my cookbook. You only need about a teaspoon for the recipe and if you add more, the mustard seeds and fenugreek will make your dish slightly bitter.

Nutmeg - Biji Buah Pala

In Penang the flesh of nutmeg is turned to pickle, the mace into ointment, and the seed into ground spice. At home, I prefer to keep the whole nutmeg in my kitchen cupboard and grate it fresh whenever I need it, instead of ready ground in a jar. Freshly grated nutmeg is strong so you only need a little as the flavour can overpower other spices.

Cinnamon - Kulit Kayu Manis

I had never seen a cinnamon tree until the famous Auntie Aini in Nilai showed me. I remember my first visit to her café; she picked the cinnamon leaf, bruised it with her fingers and told me to smell and guess to which plant it belonged. Luckily I guessed right! Knowing her she would have had a go at me for getting it wrong. Auntie Aini is so knowledgeable and never fails to share her knowledge with others who are keen to learn. The sweet smell of cinnamon makes it one of my favourite spices. The best cinnamon is the rolled type, which is more expensive than the bark.

Star Anise - Bunga Lawang

This is one of my late mum’s favourite spices. To honour her for the amazing recipes she passed down to me, which I have included in the book, I chose Star Anise for the book cover. In the kitchen, I break the petals into smaller pieces before toasting and grinding them with other spices. Star anise is great for seasoning, something savoury or sweet. It works well to infuse rice.

Ground Five Spice – fennel, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and peppercorns.

Whoever created this spice mixture is a genius. It is perfectly balanced, each spice complementing one another and is so aromatic. I like to add this spice (1 teaspoon) with hoisin sauce (2 tablespoons), season with a pinch of salt and marinade chicken pieces (400g), and then fry it with a little oil on a low heat until cooked. Thinly slice the chicken and serve with salad. Delicious!

 

Green Cardamom - Buah Pelaga

If you accidentally chew on a cardamom pod – you’ll know about it! If I use whole cardamoms in my cooking, I count how many I put in the dish and once cooked, make sure I remove them all. Biting into them can be unpleasant! In my restaurant kitchen, where a dish is cooked in a big batch, we use muslin cloth to make a spice pouch, and then all the spices can be removed easily. I don’t usually bruise cardamom pods before adding into a dish, unless if they are toasted with other spices.

 

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